Augmented Reality Is Going to Change Board Games for the Better

No more stepping on Monopoly pieces.

An attentive, progressive man thinking while playing virtual chess.

Apple, Facebook, and numerous other Silicon Valley companies have made big bets on augmented reality. The technology, which embeds virtual objects into the real world using your smartphone camera and screen or an AR headset, is still in its early years, but it’s already proving compelling in a variety of applications. There are the animated faces of Apple’s Animoji on the iPhone X and popular AR lenses on Snapchat; a growing number of interior and home design apps that help you visualize new furniture, color schemes, or materials in your house; and of course, games like Pokémon Go, which first popularized the idea of AR. Disney and Hasbro now offer AR helmets that transform your world into a Star Wars clone battle or turn you into Iron Man.

Most recently, the iOS game Star Wars: Jedi Challenges has entered the fray. This game lets you play a version of holographic chess—a game technically known as “Dejarik,” as popularized in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope—by projecting the image of a circular game board onto a flat surface. It comes complete with animated creature game pieces you move from space to space on the board. For Star Wars fans, it’s a dream: a piece of cinema history you can now play for yourself. (If you want the best experience, you’ll want to use Lenovo’s AR headset rather than just your iPhone.) But this holographic board game isn’t just intriguing because of its sci-fi heritage. It’s also an example of what we could see from tabletop games in the future.

When we think of AR games, what comes to mind are usually examples like Pokémon Go, where on-screen gameplay gets blended into the real world. But there’s also value to transforming regular old tabletop favorites like chess, Monopoly, or Settlers of Catan into augmented reality. Some, like murder-mystery classic Clue and The Game of Life, have made the transition from real-world to mobile game, but this medium delivers a completely different experience than you get with a board game. AR games could add features, such as animations or sound effects, that expand on the traditional game experience without losing the original.

Augmented reality is the natural step in tabletop gameplay evolution. Like mobile gaming, AR will bridge the gap of needing other players physically present to complete a game and provide relevance in a world centered around our smartphones; however, it could offer a more traditional feel since the game is “happening” right in front of you, in the real world. And AR board games promise a host of advantages over their real world counterparts. They eliminate the need to set up complicated boards and remove the foot-piercing pieces you eventually need to round up and put away (and the mess when someone flips the board in frustration). Perhaps even more importantly, augmented-reality board games let you play your favorite titles with friends and family regardless of whether you’re in the same room. They give you the ability to pause and pick up a game hours, days, or weeks after it first started. It’s a bit like correspondence chess, where players phone, email, or snail-mail their moves to their opponent, but for the 21st century.

A number of startups have already been working on AR tabletop game systems, but many of these require a special gameboard, cards, or playing pieces to work. The Kickstarter-funded Hologrid: Monster Battle, for example, uses augmented reality to bring characters on cards to life for a game that blends board game action with video game–style visual effects. Others, like CastAR (a startup that has since shut down) required a special mat that games must be played on. With the advent of tools like Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, developers are now able to build games entirely in augmented reality, without the need for any proprietary real-world counterparts.

Augmented reality will be the next frontier for board games trying to stay relevant in a rapidly digitizing world. AR board games will combine the best aspects of mobile gaming with the best aspects of traditional board games. When you’re in the same room with your friends at a party, there’s no substitute for the hands-on feel of rolling the dice or moving your pieces one step closer to the win. AR versions will enable that fun to continue when you can’t make it to the party because of a cold, or when everyone needs to head home before the game is done. This summer, we’ll likely see developers’ AR toolkits expand with additional features as Apple, Google, and other companies host their annual developer conferences. We should also see new AR titles that are even more realistic, immersive, and compelling than what we’ve seen so far. Expect Dejarik to get some new board game companions.